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What's your game?

Crispin Andrews looks at how John Flamsteed School in Derby is encouraging its Year 10 to take maths at A-level by using popular TV show formats.

So you earn more than pound;25,000 a year? And you run your own business?

The stylish young professional nods twice, silently smiling. They are getting closer.

A buzzing noise echoes around the room accompanied by a cacophony of groans. Saved by the bell, the swish suit smiles knowingly at the collection of thwarted faces, before rising nonchalantly and moving on to the next table. Would the students gathered here fare any better?

Imagine the classic television programme What's My Line? but with a difference. Bill, the boiler repair man, and Tony, the toilet cleaner, have been replaced by a smattering of high-flying young industry graduates. And rather than suffering the customary collection of tired old has-beens desperately dragging out their final 15 minutes of fame, we have enthusiastic groups of Year 10 students, eagerly attempting to verify their visitors' vocations.

The whole thing resembles a speed-dating event - the industry ambassadors alternating between tables of students, giving only yes or no answers to the questions fired at them. At the conclusion of the round robin, each young professional explains what their job entails, and points are awarded to groups, depending on how close their initial deductions had been.

Taking on the role of Eamon Andrews is Jon Stratford. Head of maths at the John Flamsteed Community School in Derby, he has organised the activity as part of a High Achievers in Maths Day, at the nearby University of Derby.

"The game helps our students understand that mathematics is used in many ways in a variety of occupations," explains Jon. "Although the young professionals work in fields as far apart as the aeronautical and construction industries; from lecturing to civil engineering; and in computer software design and sound engineering - all have one thing in common - a good grade at A-level maths."

What's My Line? is just one part of an event designed to encourage more able Year 10 students to consider maths in their choice of A-level or equivalent post-16 course. Specifically targeting a group of 50 students, identified through cognitive ability test and key stage 3 scores as potential high-achievers, the day is also about raising awareness of maths-related careers.

"I envisaged an event that would also engage students in higher mathematical thinking," says Jon. "One that would stretch them beyond the demands of their usual curriculum experiences and bring relevance to their mathematical study."

To this end, a highly interactive and mentally challenging session given by Barbara Ball, from the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, investigates various aspects of mathematical proof. First, she shows how all numbers with only two factors have to be prime - concentrating initially on numbers below 30, before generalising. So, if p is a prime number then it can only have two factors, l and p. She then extends this theory to numbers with three factors, proving that they have to be squares of prime numbers, before going on to develop some ideas using a "100 square" in a similar way to the GCSE coursework task Anyone For T. Finally, she turns her attention to demonstrating the geometric proof of Cross's Theorem. The audience is enthralled and involved.

In the afternoon, students' practical and co-operative skills are put to the test, as between them they construct a four-metre high tetrahedron.

Initially, each individual makes their own 30cm tall tetrahedron with six dowels and elastic bands, before combining with four other students to make one that's 60cm tall. Gradually, the shapes are combined, until, from a group of 22 students, a real monster is produced - a tetrahedron tall enough to touch the ceiling.

Ending the day is a riotous version of another TV game show - Play Your Cards Right! While two teams of 22 students battle it out, shouting the classic buzz-words "higher" and "lower", to statements like: "On average university graduates are 50 per cent more likely to get a job than non-graduates"; "It is estimated that by 2010, 70 per cent of new jobs in the UK economy will need degree level skills" and "There are 50,000 courses available from around 500 universities and colleges" - there is also a serious point to the game.

Taking time out from playing the role of Bruce Forsyth, Bernadette Maloney, projects and development officer at Aimhigher Derbyshire, explains why an organisation that seeks to raise the aspirations and attainment of young people were collaborating with John Flamsteed on this project.

"We want to raise the students' awareness of the positive aspects of university life, the range of courses available and the likely advantages of being a graduate in the 21st-century employment market," she says. "The game is just one fun way of combating the sort of negative perceptions easily gained with so much talk of student loans and debt in the national media."

Jon sees nothing but positive experiences and a multitude of benefits for all those involved, concluding the day to have been an overwhelming success. "A diverse series of practical, fun and relevant activities is always more likely to engage and enthuse students than having them sit through hours of boring lectures," he says.

Several months on and feedback gathered at the end of the day and in subsequent meetings with tutors, shows that a good number of the students - who have just entered their final year at John Flamsteed - are now considering continuing with maths when they leave the school.


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